A chapter of “When the People Speak” is now online
November 20th, 2009

I have persuaded Jim Fishkin to put the introductory chapter of his important new book, “When The People Speak: Deliberative Democracy & Public Consultation” online. For those who think that the idea of improving the publish sphere by putting together citizens with varying political views in the presence of solid information and polling methodology is crazy idealism, Fishkin offers a wealth of empirical evidence from years of methodologically controlled experimentation with “deliberative polling” — including China, the European Parliament, and groups all over the USA and the world. His most radical idea — that Americans should have a day off before the elections for “deliberation day,” is, in my opinion, the single most empirically solid and hopeful proposal for improving the often sub-standard level of political discourse among citizens.

Conventional polling (3A) uses a randomly selected microcosm to show what (usually) nondeliberative public opinion is like for the whole society. Deliberative Polling (3B) uses a randomly selected microcosm to show what more deliberative public opinion would be like for the whole society. And in the case of 4B the idea is to actually bring it about when it would matter most—in the context of an election. How could such a counterfactual possibility be realized

Our proposal is simple but expensive. We call it “Deliberation Day.”[ The problem for the Deliberative Poll was to motivate a microcosm of the entire population to overcome the incentives for rational ignorance and to engage in enough substantive face to face discussion to arrive at informed judgments—informed about the issues and the main competing arguments about them that other citizens would offer. But it is one thing to imagine doing this for a microcosm; quite another to imagine doing it for the entire population. Gallup’s vision of the mass media turning the entire country into one great room foundered, as we saw earlier, on the lack of a social context that would encourage small group deliberation. If everyone is in “one great room” in the large scale nation state, the room is so big that no one is listening. A different, more decentralized strategy is required.

Our idea is simply to have a national holiday in which all voters would be invited to participate in local, randomly assigned discussion groups as a preparation to the voting process a week later. Candidates for the major parties would make presentations transmitted by national media and local small group discussions would identify key questions that would be directed to local party representatives in relatively small scale town meetings held simultaneously all over the country. A key point is that incentives would be paid for each citizen to participate in this full day’s work of citizenship. The cost ($150 per person), while significant, would make democracy far more meaningful as it would provide for an input from the public that involved most people and that also led to a large mass of citizens becoming informed on the issues and the competing arguments. As shown by Deliberative Polls, some of which are as short as one day, even one day’s serious discussion can have a dramatic effect on ordinary citizens becoming more informed and changing their preferences in significant ways.


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